Before I announce the winners of the 2005 Penny-Pincher of the Year contest, I want to address one disturbing note I received from a reader.
He wrote: ''Cheapskate is a 100 percent, no-question negative term. I can no longer stand, for example, going out to dinner with certain co-workers who are downright cheap. When the bill comes, they start to add it up: 'I didn't have an appetizer, my entree was only . . .' It's ugly to be a cheapskate."
I'll concede the word ''cheap" is negative, so perhaps I should stop calling myself a cheapskate. However, it's not ugly to be frugal.
What's ugly is declaring ''I hate cheap people" or becoming hostile or belligerent because someone wants to just pay their fair share of a restaurant bill.
Why shouldn't you pay for what you ate? Didn't you come prepared to pay for all of your meal? Besides, most restaurants and servers are equipped to divide the dinner bill with little fuss, taking a combination of cash and credit cards.
I get into this dispute on occasion with some family and friends, typically the ones who have ordered an appetizer, high-priced entree, or an alcoholic drink. I find it interesting that these folks have no problem in insisting that I split the bill and thus subsidize their tab. Then they snidely call me cheap if I refuse.
To you bill-splitters, you may think what's the big deal, it's just $10 or whatever. But to a penny-pincher that money is better put to use for something they need or want -- not to help pay for your liquor or buffalo wings.
I'm frugal because I have three children I want to send to college. I'm frugal because I know what it's like to be hungry and I never want to feel those pains again. I've seen what a lack of savings in good times can do to a family in harder times.
Having said that, perhaps we penny-pinchers do need to be less conspicuous about our cheapness -- oops, I mean frugality. At times we can be irritating.
And now for the winning penny-pinchers of the year:
Honorable mention: Ed LaClare of South Riding, Va. LaClare won for surviving his penny-pincher endeavor. He nearly choked trying to suck out the last drop of toothpaste. No amount of water would dislodge the glob of paste. ''I went to bed with toothpaste still in the back of my throat," he said. ''It was not until midway through the next day that my throat felt free of toothpaste." LaClare wins $25, which I hope he'll use to buy a big supply of toothpaste.
Third place: Phyllis Robbins of Framingham. She redefines the term ''wash and wear." ''I wash my underwear and jeans by throwing them into the shower. This is a real money-saver and time saver." Robbins wins $50.
Second place: Gayle Tweeton Parsons of Springfield, Va., who nominated her retired IRS manager. ''My manager had a reputation for being frugal, which I admired, being frugal myself. But this time, he outdid himself," said Parsons, who is also retired. ''His daughter had helped decorate a school homecoming float, inserting thousands of paper towels in the wire to create a beautiful float. After the parade, my manager had the kids park the float in his driveway, where he meticulously removed all the paper towels from the float, folded them neatly, and stacked them in his basement to serve as his lifetime supply of paper towels. Clever, cheap, environmentally friendly, all rolled into one." Parsons and her former manager each win $75.
Finally, first place goes to Dale Stewart of Kihei, Hawaii. Stewart traveled a great distance to save money. During a visit to Washington, D.C., one of her sons had a drink in a container that had ''HI 5" printed on it, the five-cent redemption stamp for cans and bottles in Hawaii.
''There we were in D.C. with a bottle worth five cents in Hawaii, but zero in Washington," she wrote.
Naturally, Stewart did what any penny-pincher would do.
''I washed it out and packed it in our suitcase," she said.
Since January, when the bottle recycling law went into effect in Hawaii, Stewart has redeemed about $70 worth of cans and bottles. And all the money has been donated to charity.
Stewart wins $100 for her frugal efforts to save money and her environment and share her wealth with others.
Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.